Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part I. Cultural and vocal challenges

When I wrote 'Our Masters' Voices' (1984), Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and looked well set to win at least one more term of office (and actually won two more). The following is a somewhat revised version of what I wrote then, and will be followed in due course by some further blog entries about how she and her advisors sought to solve the problems she was up against as the UK's first woman head of government.

It was important for Martin Luther King's success as a communicator that there already existed a distinctive black religious tradition that could be readily adapted for speaking on behalf of the civil rights movement, because American political oratory before the 1960s had been dominated by white males. But, when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 after winning the first of three UK general elections, there were no such obvious models for women. For thousands of years before that, politics and speech-making had been almost exclusively male preserves.

There are no records of any famous female orators in classical Greece or Rome, where the early texts on rhetoric assumed that the practitioners would all be male. This was very evident in the opening pages of Quintillian’s classic work on The Education of an Orator, where he had this to say about the aim of the book:

‘We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless as a good man; and we require in him, therefore, not only consummate ability in speaking, but every excellence of mind ... since the man who can duly sustain his character as a citizen, who is qualified for the management of public and private affairs, and who can govern communities by his counsels, settle them by means of law, and improve them by judicial enactments, can certainly be nothing else but an orator.' (Quintillian, Institutes of Oratory, or The Education of an Orator, p. 4, emphases added)

In the years before Mrs Thatcher became prime minister of the UK, a number of women had become heads of government in other countries - Mrs Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Mrs Peron in Argentina, Mrs Gandhi in India and Mrs Meir in Israel - success stories that might seem to suggest that the male-dominated political mould had already been broken and that women in the future would in be able to enjoy equal opportunities in the pursuit of political careers.

Even then, however, there were two reasons for caution in drawing any such conclusion. The first was that three of the women who’d achieved high political office also had close family ties with male national heroes who had recently died, with Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher being the only ones who had reached the top entirely by their own individual efforts.

A second reason for caution is that women faced and still face cultural and physical obstacles with which men never have to contend. In the absence of any established tradition like that in which black American leaders Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson were able to operate, female politicians still have to develop new ways of surviving and thriving in such a male-dominated profession. This raises the question of whether the solutions found by Mrs Thatcher established any ground-rules that might benefit aspiring women politicians of the present and future.

Some of the problems faced by women in politics are obviously much the same as those faced by women in any other male-dominated profession – aptly summed up by the adage that ‘they’re damned if they behave like men, and damned if they don't.' If a woman acts in a tough, decisive or ruthless manner, she risks having her femininity being called into question. But if she appears gentle, indecisive or conciliatory, her male colleagues may conclude that she’s simply not up to the job.

This is a dilemma familiar to most professional women, but female politicians face another disadvantage because public speaking is such an important part of the job – not just because the techniques of oratory and debate have been monopolized by men for so long, but also because of the difference in length of male and female vocal cords that affect the pitch of the human voice.

Pitch can be a problem for all public speakers, whatever their sex, because it tends to rise when someone is nervous or is speaking louder than usual – both of which are likely to happen in speeches. For women the problem is more acute because the natural pitch of their voices has a higher starting point than is the case for men, with the result that it cannot rise as far before reaching a level at which it sounds 'shrill'.

This might not matter but for the fact that high pitch tends to be strongly associated with emotional or irrational outbursts - a deeply rooted cultural assumption that probably derives from (and is sustained by) the screams of each new generation of infants. The fact that the sound of a woman raising her voice is more likely to be negatively evaluated as ‘shrill' or 'screeching' is probably at the heart of a source of irritation that’s familiar to many professional women, namely the tendency of male colleagues to accuse them of 'overreacting' whenever they become involved in arguments.

Nor is it just a matter of there being negative associations with high pitched voices, as there are positive associations between lower-pitched female voices and attractiveness, 'huskiness' and 'sexiness'. Shakespeare's positive evaluation of low pitch has long been enshrined in the dictionaries of quotations:

'Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman' (King Lear, V, iii).

So the fact that Mrs Thatcher took positive steps to lower the pitch of her voice was a perfectly rational response to a real problem. Under the guidance of the National Theatre, she underwent training that included humming exercises aimed at lowering her previously natural pitch. Comparing recordings of speeches she made before and after tuition reveals a clearly audible difference. When played through a pitch and intensity analyser, the reduction in pitch came out at 46 Hz – a figure that’s almost half the average difference in pitch between male and female voices.

This significant decrease was all the more remarkable because it was achieved after Mrs Thatcher had already passed the age at which the pitch of women's voices tends naturally to rise: generally speaking, it falls up to the age of about forty-five, after which the it gradually starts to rise.

The lowering of her voice had other consequences that probably contributed both to the greater clarity of her talk and to its 'statesmanlike' character. For example, the human voice-production system works in such a way that a reduction in pitch tends to slow down the speed at which we speak, and the tutored Mrs Thatcher spoke noticeably more slowly than she did before having any voice coaching.

You can inspect the change in her style of speaking in the following clip showing her in one interview just after she became leader of the opposition in 1975 and another about ten years later after she'd spent two terms as prime minister.

1 comment:

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